Thursday, March 31, 2005

READY FOR PRIME TIME: Mediation comes to reality television

Reality television and mediationHard to say which is more annoying—reality television or spam. (Spam would probably get my vote, since there’s little I can do to prevent it from showing up in my inbox. Avoiding reality television is much easier—I just don’t have to watch any.)

Recently I got a double dose of annoyance in my email inbox: spam about reality television. The message came from someone claiming to be a representative for a casting company looking for contestants for Love Thy Neighbor, a new “comedy-reality series” debuting on TBS.

I hastened to the TBS web site, and learned that this is no urban legend. TBS does indeed have a new series in the works. This is what TBS has to say about Love Thy Neighbors:

Are you annoyed with your neighbors? Do their sprinklers flood your convertible? Does the menagerie of noisy animals in their backyard keep you up at night?

If your home, sweet home is turning sour thanks to your neighbors, we have the show for you!
I was hoping at this point that the next thing I would read would be something along these lines:
But no challenge is too great for our team of professional mediators, who are tough enough to help real-life Hatfields and McCoys kiss and make up.
Instead I read:

We're looking for a set of neighbors willing to compete against each other in a new comedy reality series on TBS. If you're fed up with the people next door or across the street, here's your chance to even the score.
Revenge, not reconciliation, is evidently the focus of Love Thy Neighbor. I therefore figured that all this meant was that it would be a long time indeed before anyone gets around to making a TV show about mediation. (However, back in 2003 a casting call went out from “Cheri Sundae Productions”—no, I am not making that name up—for two divorcing couples willing to mediate their divorce while the camera rolls. The show, tentatively titled “Divorce Mediation” was supposed to begin filming in late 2003 and air last year on Discovery Health Channel, but no further word has been heard since. Which is probably a good thing. If you’d like to see the press release, go to http://www.mediation-works.org/pg204.cfm and scroll way down.)

It turns out I was wrong about mediation’s readiness for prime time. Britain’s Channel 4 is airing Families at War, a new reality TV program with a very different focus from Love Thy Neighbor. Here’s how Channel 4’s web site describes its new offering:

Would you like the chance to heal a family rift? Perhaps your family has fallen out over something big, or something small, and you don't know how to resolve the problem.

RDF Media is producing a new series called Families at War for Channel 4 and are looking for feuding family members to come together under one roof in the hope of bringing about reconciliation. During the programme they will be helped by family peacemakers and a professional mediator. [Emphasis mine.]
(American readers may be interested to know that there are rumors that Families at War may soon be another British export to the U.S.)

Although I welcome the publicity Families at War will no doubt bring to the mediation field, I am concerned about how accurately the program will portray mediation. (Anyone who remembers the mediation scene from the Michael Douglas/Demi Moore flick Disclosure will know what I’m talking about: a stern-faced mediator, wearing a judge’s robes, conducts an adversarial process while a court stenographer seated in the background records the proceedings.)

Hopefully a program like Families at War will increase public understanding of mediation, not muddy the waters. We still haven’t been able to clear up the confusion between mediation and arbitration (or between mediation and meditation, for that matter). Despite the fact that mediation has become far more widespread of late, there remains perplexity in the public mind about what mediators actually do and how we do it.

While perhaps it’s true that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, let’s just hope that if mediation becomes reality television’s hot new topic, the media portray it positively, sensibly, and accurately so that the field—and the public—benefit.

And now for a word from our sponsor...